On the shoulders of giants
Titanfall is a testament to what a talented group of people can accomplish when given permission to pursue the very essence of their dream, without any caveats or superfluous decoration mandated by publishers.
Respawn Entertainment’s debut is everything it needs to be—and nothing more. The former Call of Duty developers removed any padding and dropped all unnecessary extra weight, leaving behind a lean, star athlete built for the sport of online first-person-shooter multiplayer. In place of a traditional, offline single-player mode in which you’re funneled down a linear series of guided action sequences, Titanfall touts a multiplayer campaign that sees nine of the game’s 15 total maps serve as arenas for guerrilla skirmishes between the militant Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation and the ragtag rebels who call themselves the Militia.
The story told over this campaign is a simple one that exists solely to set up improvisational performances by players, as opposed to a rigidly scripted experience. As the IMC and the Militia wage war over ownership of Frontier planetary systems, players participate in each frenzied 6-on-6 fracas by battling it out as jump kit–enhanced human Pilots with wall-running, building-leaping agility and two-story mechanical goliaths, the game’s titular Titans. But unlike Call of Duty or other multiplayer-centric shooters, Titanfall’s campaign is not to be ignored. It serves as an extended tutorial that helps familiarize players with the bulk of the game’s maps and its systems, as well as a means to level up and unlock additional weapons, abilities, and gear for Pilot and Titan alike. It’s also the only way to unlock the second and third Titan chassis—the heavily armored Ogre and the much swifter Stryder—for custom loadouts, with one awarded for completing the campaign as IMC, the other as Militia.
Across both the campaign and the classic multiplayer, there’s a level of respect to balance and fairness that borderlines on religion. Because development saw no division of resources between single- and multiplayer, Respawn had the time to attend to each map lovingly, patiently whittling away until every detail was just right. In a game populated by players that can bound between walls and jump across buildings, giant mechs that drop out of the sky and stomp about, and a number of AI combatants to pick off at leisure, it’s kind of amazing that no map feels inadequately designed for one or the other. Of course, some maps favor Pilots, while others are more suited to Titans, but this simply compels players to change up tactics rather than fall into typical routines. Otherwise, from the multistoried, expansive scope of Airbase to the tight corridors and intimate encounters in the abandoned, dried-up reservoir that is Rise, every battleground imparts expert craftsmanship that impressively accommodates Titanfall’s unique brand of tiered combat.
Similarly accommodating are the armaments. Instead of an overabundance of weapon selections wherein the first assault rifle available feels like the one you’re stuck with until you unlock the next iteration, the hardware in Titanfall—all slickly designed to resemble our collectively understood schema of “assault rifle,” “shotgun,” “SMG,” and so on, but with just a hint of a sci-fi facelift—each represents the expected archetypes, but their perfect form. Every weapon handles like the product of exhaustive research into the most popular, best-feeling versions of videogame firearms, but no one gun is decidedly superior to another—just different. So, instead of a homogenous move toward one clearly dominant damage-dealer, players are free to worship at the altar of their preferences and playstyles. Of course, unlocking these—as is the new norm in first-person shooters—will require an investment of time. Experience points are awarded generously, but getting to level 29 and unlocking the three-burst Hemlok BF-R assault rifle means sinking something between 10 to 20 hours into Titanfall. Worse punishments have been devised.
Of course, these weapons—regardless of how distinctly great they each feel—are hardly what sets Titanfall apart. Nor, for that matter, are the industrial combat machines that lovingly pluck you out of the sky and insert you into their cockpit belly. No, the real star of the show is the jump kit nestled on the lower back of every Pilot. They’re what make Titanfall—more than any of its other notable elements—a game-changer. They turn battles into matches defined by momentum and make aggression the key to victory. As a result, Titanfall is familiar in the inescapably fundamental way any first-person shooter is, but markedly unlike its competition experientially—and that’s invigorating. What, at a passing glance, seems like another skill-based shooter rooted in twitch reflexes and mastery over map layouts quickly reveals itself to be one in which a player with a knack for three-dimensional navigation can get just as much of a jump on someone quick to the draw and triumph. Firefights become firefights, showdowns that can play to any player’s strengths so long as they capitalize on them—not whoever rounds the corner and pulls their trigger first. And those quick on their feet can fly out of a jam fast.
It’s this absence of routine that makes Titanfall so addictive, something that can be played for hours on end—and then some—with no signs of fatigue. Contrary to concerns that 6-on-6 clashes would feel limited or antiquated as compared to what other popular shooters offer, each engagement between the IMC and the Militia is unmistakably action-packed. This is a bland descriptor to append to a first-person shooter, I admit, but it’s apt. Despite sporting a smaller player count than its cousins, the fruits of Respawn’s labor strike me as much more “alive,” an event that the player is participating in versus a team sport. Yes, there remains an undeniable allure to racking up kills and keeping deaths low, but anyone preoccupied with these stats, regardless of how insanely well they perform, won’t necessarily be the heralded hero that brings home victory. With Titans to take down, Grunts to grind, and Pilots to pulverize, MVP status is awarded to those who try to win the war over those single-mindedly seeking to dominate the kill/death ratio.
This represents not only a facet of Titanfall’s charm, but also its nicotine. Since even the most talented trigger fingers won’t be able to sustain the weight of victory alone, Titanfall invites players across a wide cross-section of skill level to cohabitate and contribute to a team effort that doesn’t require that the team at large be populated by near-pro competitors. Depending on the game mode, the player collecting AI kills is doing just as much for the team as the one slaughtering the opposition’s Pilots.
Respawn’s debut is, unquestionably, worthy of all the praises sung about it. The team looked up one day and wondered why we weren’t spending more time exploiting the Z-axis in videogames—and decided to do something about it. The end result proves that we’re all the better for it. This may not convert FPS nonbelievers, but it does tap directly into the veins of those already on a steady first-person-shooter drip who’ve long since built up a numb tolerance to what, in the wake of Titanfall, will seem like rote alternatives. For them, Titanfall is the 151-proof version of their favorite liquor: familiar in taste, but so much more potent.
|Developer: Respawn Entertainment • Publisher: Electronic Arts • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 3.11.2014|
Titanfall lives up to all the expectations established when it was first revealed, in a way that so few games are able ever to accomplish, and represents nothing short of first-person shooter multiplayer taken to new heights.
|The Good||Mechs, jump-jets, map variety, mode variety, and the list goes on.|
|The Bad||Interplanetary colonists squabbling with government sounds like so much Serenity.|
|The Ugly||The embarrassment of being killed by a Spectre, Grunt, or AI Titan.|
|Titanfall is available on Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One.|